Kathmandu slum dwellers fear government bulldozers

Published on Radio Netherlands Worldwide. 



Kathmandu is home to nearly 50,000 squatters spread across the city’s slums. With grand plans to beautify the city, the government has repeatedly threatened to evict the dwellers. Of particular attention are the settlements along the Bagmati River, which runs through Kathmandu. This river has gotten much attention for its filth in recent years, and projects to clean it up now turn to removing the thousands of families who call the riverbanks home.

A mother of three sits in front of her home, a shack made of corrugated tin and scrap wood, holding her children. The river running next to the house reeks of sewage and garbage.

She won’t let the children go to school – she’s afraid bulldozers might come while they are away and they would get separated.

The settlement where she lives along the Bagmati River in Kathmandu has been under threat of demolition for months. The nearly 4000 residents of the slum are helplessly waiting as the government decides their fate.

As part of urban development projects, the demolition of squatter settlements around Kathmandu has been debated for years.

But no clear plan has emerged. Residents rely on rumors and news reports to learn about their future.

“The government has said nothing so I don’t know what the truth is,” says Ram, age 59, who has lived in the settlement for 32 years.

From what he hears every day, he believes the demolitions will take place in the middle of the night. “They will bring the Armed Police, I heard that on the radio,” he says, “and they’ll ruin our houses and we will have to walk to another place.”

Kathmandu newspapers and radio programs have reported plans to use nearly 3,000 police troops to enforce the process.

Encouraged to move
Many residents of the riverside settlement claim the government encouraged them to move onto the land.

Sumina Hamal, 48, lives with her daughter and 4 grandchildren. She trusted the government representatives who approached her after she lost her job in a carpet factory 4 years ago.

“Without work, we couldn’t pay rent, so we were going to be homeless – with the government saying this place was open, it was the best option.”

Services such as free day care and schools – some run by government agencies, some by NGOs – have been critical to the survival of people living in the settlements

Once settled, many residents work as domestic workers and day laborers. 30 years old, Hamal’s daughter explains that “with the day care here, we can take work when we get it, and we know the children will be safe.”  She adds, “Our kids get a free mid-day meal at school,”

If the settlement is razed, she fears, the burden to feed more mouths will strain her meager salary, which she earns as a part-time housekeeper at a hotel.

The fear of the demolitions has made some of these programs ineffective in recent weeks. Schools in the settlements report record low attendance. Parents, hearing rumors of imminent demolitions, are keeping their kids at home.

A favor
International watchdog Human Rights Watch wrote to the government, urging them to adhere to international standards in the eviction process.

“If the government wants to evict the squatters, they owe them notice substantially in advance, they need to relocate them within a reasonable distance of the current settlement, and they need to carry out the evictions humanely,” explains Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

And as the residents wait, so do the officials who will carry out the demolitions.

Ravi Raj Shrestha, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, explains: “We don’t have any instructions right now, so we too are waiting to hear from the government.”

For decades ephemeral political powers have encouraged people to move from the countryside to the city. They have been told to occupy urban land, and as a return favor, vote for their party.

“The Maoists told us to move here and then asked us for our votes, so we gave it because they gave us land,” explains Bishnu, age 48, who moved here during the conflict when his village was attacked.

Kathmandu is now home to over 1.7 million people. As the population increases, authorities will be forced to manage and move people – many of whom flocked to the city during the decade-long conflict to escape violence.

Whether this government is serious about the evictions remains to be seen. But the residents ask that they be moved in a reasonable manner.

One resident, expecting eviction, explains, “We are willing to go. This place is filthy, why would we want to live here? But they have to do it correctly and be honest with us”

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